Thunder Bay’s East End has a long, complicated, but fascinating history in the development of the city. From its origins as the site of a vibrant fur trading fort, to the arrival of the railway after the post’s decline, to the growth of a diverse working-class neighbourhood, the East End serves in many respects as a microcosm of the story of Thunder Bay.
It is a story that begins with the Anishinabeg people who lived and travelled across Lake Superior’s north shore for many centuries before the arrival of Europeans. The Anishinabeg hunted, fished, and also maintained complex trading relationships across the North American continent, with items such as copper tools made from the rich copper deposits around Lake Superior.
In 1717, the French fur-trading Fort Kaministiquia was established on the north bank of its namesake river, following an earlier fort on the south bank dating from the late seventeenth century. The Anishinabeg people traded furs and goods with the French during this period, as well as guided and assisted in their explorations.
It was not until just after 1800 when the site became a significant entrepôt (or trans-shipment point) for furs and goods between eastern Canada and the Athabaska Country. Up to that point the North West Company (NWC) used Grand Portage as their main Lake Superior depot, but stemming from the outcome of the American revolutionary war and the establishment of the border along the Pigeon River, the company shifted its operations in 1803 to what would become Fort William, named after William McGillivray, who took over as head of the NWC from his uncle, Simon McTavish.
During this period, the fort served as a point where furs travelling east and trade goods travelling west were exchanged between the larger Canot-du-Maître, which travelled between Montreal and Lake Superior, and smaller Canot-du-Nord which travelled the more rugged terrain west of Lake Superior. The merger between the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 ended this fur trade ‘golden age’, and after Sir George Simpson shifted the main trade routes away from Lake Superior and toward Hudson’s Bay, Fort William declined in importance.
Fort William did continue on as a minor Hudson’s Bay Company post after 1821 and employees of the company continued to forge close relationships with the Anishinabeg people who had settled near the fort. Many married Anishinabeg women, who performed important roles in the trade such as farming, processing furs, making maple syrup and assisting with snaring and fishing. The last factor of the post was John McIntyre, who served in that role starting in 1855. McIntyre and his family played a large role in the area’s social fabric during that time, and John would later serve as the Indian agent for Treaty #3. The Old Fort, once a vibrant, bustling depot, quietly closed in 1878, at a time when the area’s economy was shifting to other commodities such as mining, forestry, and soon railway-based grain transshipment.
Already by the mid-nineteenth century, colonial encroachment in Northwestern Ontario, particularly in the form of prospectors seeking to exploit the area’s mineral wealth, had led to the need for a Treaty. The Robinson-Superior Treaty was signed in 1850 and set aside reserve lands, such as Fort William First Nation south of the Kaministiquia, and preserved hunting and fishing rights. It also paved the way for industrial development, and eventually the arrival of the railway that would shape the next chapter of the East End’s development.
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) arrived from the west in 1882, and would soon after begin bringing in loads of grain to the two developing centres of Port Arthur and Fort William. While the CPR began its local development in what is now Westfort, eventually the mouth of the Kaministiquia became the centre of its operations, with freight sheds, grain elevators, and particularly its coal-handling facilities, such that the surrounding neighbourhood would for many decades be referred to as simply ‘the Coal Docks’. (The concrete wall remainder visible from Island Drive is a remnant of this facility.)
The neighbourhood which sprang up in the following decades to house the CPR’s many employees had streets named after Scottish fur traders – McNaughton, McTavish, McIntosh – as a testament to that chapter of the area’s history. The neighborhood would also become known for its ethnic character, and being home to wide variety of groups that were decidedly socially isolated from the broader fabric of Fort William society. These groups included Finns, Greeks, Italians, Polish, Slovaks, Ukrainians and many others. The neighborhood developed on both sides of the CPR tracks, with a western component in the area between Simpson Street and May Street south of the Neebing River.
While work in the bustling city was plentiful, conditions were difficult. Tensions over labour conditions were an ever-present fact of life. In particular, one of the bloodiest labour riots in Canadian history took place in and around the East End in 1909 when freight handlers began a six-day strike that eventually would see military intervention brought in to help the outnumbered police. Living conditions were also far from ideal. The neighbourhood grew faster than other areas of Fort William and overcrowding was a constant problem. City services could also not catch up with the population growth. The eastern component of the area was also constructed on what was essentially a bog, with many floods occurring as well.
Despite these challenges, the cultural groups that inhabited the East End developed strong social bonds and built institutions that would anchor their communities. Ukrainians in the East End developed the Fort William Prosvita Society, which by 1913 occupied a building on McPherson Street, intended for social cohesion and cultural education They also constructed a Catholic Church and Greek Orthodox Church. Poles started St. Casimir’s Church at the corner of McKenzie and Robertson Streets, west of the main tracks. The Slovak community built St. Peter’s Church in 1893 and later a school in 1909. The Italian community built St. Joseph’s Church starting in 1912, later to become St. Dominic’s.
Many businesses as well have lined the streets of the East End. The area was home to many small grocery stores and delis, such as Kutnic’s Groceries and Meat, later to become The Commissary. Lakehead Broom Manufacturing operated on McTavish Street between 1889 and 1969 – some of its machinery is now in the collection of the Thunder Bay Museum. Frank Charry’s store, at the corner of Simpson and Rowand, served as a gathering place for residents of the area, becoming known as ‘Charry’s Corner’. Frank Charry grew up in on McLaughlin Street and was employed by the CPR – later, he would become an alderman and lobby for improvements to living conditions in the Coal Docks.
The neighbourhood’s social isolation was improved by 1950 when an overpass was constructed across the tracks on Pacific Avenue. Before this, with numerous trains passing every hour on the busy CPR tracks, getting from one side to the other was a complicated affair (residents would often wait at Frank Charry’s store for long freight trains to pass by).
Today, the East End is a quiet neighbourhood, primarily residential but with several businesses, both new and old, still operating. The area’s skyline is punctuated by church cupolas and steeples, still gathering places for some of the vibrant communities that call Thunder Bay home. It is difficult to do justice to an area with as complex and fascinating a history as the East End in an exhibit such as this, so for those interested please refer to the resources below which discuss these themes in greater detail, all of which are available in the museum’s library. The museum occasionally leads historical walking tours through this area, on hold in 2020, but hoping to resume in the future.
- Beaulieu, Michel S. Labour at the Lakehead: Ethnicity, Socialism, and Politics, 1900-1935. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.
- Lytwyn, Victor P. “The Anishinabeg and the Fur Trade.” In Thunder Bay: From Rivalry to Unity, edited by Thorold J. Tronrud and A. Ernest Epp, 16-36. Thunder Bay: The Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, 1995, 2008.
- Morrison, Jean. Labour Pains: Thunder Bay’s Working Class in Canada’s Wheat Boom Era. Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, 2009.
- Morrison, Jean, ed. Lake Superior to Rainy Lake: Three Centuries of Fur Trade History. Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, 2003.
- Morrison, Jean. Superior Rendezvous-Place: Fort William in the Canadian Fur Trade. Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2001.
- Piovesana, Roy. Italians of Fort William’s East End. Thunder Bay: Institute for Italian Studies – Lakehead University, 2011.